Earlier this month, I had my worst technical glitch to date on stage. I wasn’t giving a speech: actually, I was performing at the Takoma Park Folk Festival in Washington, DC.
While I was singing, I started to hear scratchy feedback coming from the speakers. I thought it was just my own speaker, but soon I started to see people in the crowd wincing and looking at the sound technicians. At one point, the technicians walked up on stage and handed me someone else’s guitar – which I needed to tune and re-adjust in the moment – while I was standing on stage in front of 100 people. When that guitar didn’t work, they had to hand me back my original guitar and then make more adjustments.
Imagine a full 5 minutes of silence, standing in front of a packed crowd, while you confer with the technicians and try to figure out what’s wrong. We worked it out in the end, but it made for a very frustrating performance.
Can you imagine this happening during your next speech? Perhaps there’s feedback from the microphone, the audience can’t hear you, or the PowerPoint doesn’t work.
So what do you do when things go wrong on stage?
1) Don’t Panic: when things don’t go as planned, try not to panic or get angry. Stay calm and collected. If the audience doesn’t notice the glitch, then try to ignore it and push through. If the problem is obvious enough that the audience does notice, talk through what’s happening. “So it appears that there are some sound difficulties. I’m going to ask the sound technician to come up here and help me. Stay tuned for just a minute.”
2) Use Humor: if you can laugh about it, definitely do so. At one point during my show, I said to the audience in a sing-songy voice, “Thank you for your patience. Your call is very important to us, please continue to hold for the next available folksinger.” If you are relaxed, the audience will relax.
3) Delegate: if you can have someone else deal with the glitch, let them do it. When I was on stage, I should have just let the technicians deal with the issue while I sang a song a cappella (with no guitar). We did not need 5 people, including myself, conferring on the issue. If you can break up your speech, come out into the crowd and do an interactive exercise while someone else handles the problem; you make the presentation even more engaging.
4) Prepare in Advance: obviously, a thorough sound check would have helped us prevent this situation. However, in a folk festival with 7 performers playing on one stage throughout the day, we only had 5 minutes for a sound check. Similarly, your speech could take place in the middle of a long day of speakers. Try to think of a list of things that could go wrong and bring backups, such as copies of your PowerPoint slides for the audience to take home. In my case, I needed an extra battery for the equipment inside my guitar.
5) Post-Mortem: after every event, sit down and analyze the situation. What went wrong? What went well? What could I have done differently? What should I keep in mind for next time? I use Evernote to write up a report after every speech, making note of both the positive and negative and making recommendations for next time.
Errors will happen, and they won’t always be your fault. While you can’t control what happens, you can control how you handle it and what you do next. Stay calm, laugh it off if you can, and remember the old performing adage…
”The show must go on!”